My experience at Oleana last weekend inspired me to prepare a Middle Eastern-themed meal, so I concocted my favorite excuse to cook, inviting some friends over for brunch. I wanted to build the meal around shakshuka, a North African dish I had had bookmarked for awhile. Isn’t that a wicked fun word to say? It’s both exotic and bad-ass, and had I not known what it referred to, I could just as easily be deceived into thinking it was a fun island cocktail or the baseline for a rap beat. Plus, it rhymes with nasty words like hookah and bazooka. Couldn’t you totally see Eminem dropping the above line? I hope he credits me when he does…though ideally not by referring to me as a b*tch or ho.
Last Sunday afternoon I resolved not to eat out for lunch or dinner during the work week as part of an effort to reawaken the ascetic in me. It’s now Wednesday night and I am batting 0.857 (6/7, which includes Sunday dinner). The only miss was Tuesday night, when I caved into an offer to dine at Pierrot: boudin blanc, smoked herring, duck with bourbon sauce, leg of rabbit, fine baguette specimens specially delivered from Montreal. I withheld from taking wine, which counts for something, right? Other than that delicious misstep, I’ve subsisted on a steady supply of self-prepped meals and leftovers. This stir-fry was good for three meals, a hummus-heavy salad lasted me two, and I made a cold-weather chili tonight, the leftovers of which will comprise one more hearty supper. It’s possible lunch tomorrow will be carrots plus hummus, but the temporary dissatisfaction will be outweighed by the belief that I am doing myself some greater good.
Tofu and noodle stir-fry
–makes 3 servings–
1 green pepper, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
6 oz. tofu, sliced the same size as peppers and onions
7 oz. stir-fry noodles, prepared according to instructions (I used Thai Kitchen stir-fry rice noodles)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp oil
Sauté garlic, onions, and peppers in oil until onions are translucent and peppers are soft, 5-7 minutes on medium-high heat. Add the tofu and rice noodles, and season to taste with any combination of soy sauce, fish sauce, chili garlic sauce, even a dash of ketchup (I won’t tell).
Last weekend, I made the trek to Cheung Chau Island for its annual Bun Festival. As expected, the island was packed, mostly with local Hong Kongers who ferry-ed their way over for a day of buns and fun in the sun. Along the ferry pier and all around town, vendors peddled adorable bun-themed paraphernalia and, of course, food. The festival’s namesake is a simple steamed white bun filled with traditional lotus paste and emblazoned in pink with the Chinese characters for ‘peace’ (so I’m told). For the entire day these buns were sold up and down every street, filling the air with puffs of smoke and the sweet smell of fresh mantou.
It’s often difficult mustering up the energy to cook for one. Combined with a severe lack of kitchen space/appliances and the fact that casual Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong are ubiquitous and cheap (a large steaming bowl of soup noodles with a generous topping of ground pork and pickled vegetables is about $3.50US), it also just tends not to be worth doing, practically speaking. And in instances when the calling for cookery overwhelms the pragmatism within, the results are spotty and always well short of sublime. While I might get a healthier, heartier, or more rewarding meal from my pains, the principles of cooking for one — time-efficiency, minimal use of cookware, adherence to the tried and true — do not lend themselves to effecting extraordinary, or even memorable, gastronomic experiences. Every once in awhile, however, the stars in one’s culinary universe will align, and the joint efforts of a craving, idea/recipe, and the final execution (especially when the dish calls for nothing more than tossing and blending) forge a harmonious, delightful sensory interlude.
Such was the case earlier this week. I came back late at night from a particularly wearisome tutoring session, badly craving something light and refreshing. Hong Kong restaurant food is anything but “light and refreshing,” so I was forced to look elsewhere, namely at own two hands, to conquer this beast. I had a pack of Japanese cucumbers and some corn and mentally fast forwarded to the summer, when pureeing such ingredients to concoct a chilled soup would have been a no-brainer. While the weather wasn’t perfect, the timing was, and this recipe was an ideal guide while allowing some room for improv.
Chilled corn and cucumber soup:
– serves 3-4 as an appetizer or 2 as a main –
(Adapted from sassy radish)
1 can corn (reserve can juice)
3 Japanese cucumbers
juice of 1 lime
1 clove of garlic, minced
diced jalapeno peppers to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1 200g cup of plain yogurt
(Possible additions: avocado, tomatillos, onion, cashews, cilantro)
Cut cucumbers into 1 inch pieces. Combine cucumbers with lime juice and salt, and let rest for a few minutes to draw out water.
Combine cucumber mixture with remaining ingredients and pulse in blender until you reach desired consistency. Add corn juice as needed.
Season to taste and preferably chill before serving.
While I can eat scores of raw red cabbage tossed in olive oil and balsamic, sauteing it provides a nice and easy change of pace. Much more mellow flavor, and a little butter never hurt anyone.
Sauteed red cabbage
–serves 2-3 as a side–
1/2 red cabbage head, chopped finely or shredded
1 small onion, thinly sliced
3 or 4 tbsp butter (or your choice of oil)
couple cloves o’ garlic, diced
1. let butter melt in hot pan until foamy and on the verge of browning.
2. add onions and cook until translucent, about 5 mins.
3. toss in garlic and then cabbage.
4. cook cabbage, stirring frequently, until desired done-ness (i like it cooked through but still crunchy).
5. serve – makes about 4 servings.
Well, that’s what PETA would like us to think. Unfortunately for them, their TV ad was deemed too dirty to be aired during the Super Bowl. Here it is:
PETA’s argument is pretty lame: the gist is that vegetarians have better sex not because they’re vegetarians per se, but because they tend to be more health-conscious, thus less obese, and consequently less disposed to the problems that accompany obesity. After all, as the article points out, a vegetarian following a strictly regimented diet of french fries would probably not be having better sex than a steak and burger fiend. Furthermore, what does ‘better sex’ even mean and how is it measured? It seems suspiciously synonymous with ‘more likely to have sex with a better-looking person’. Perhaps that is all fine and well, but what the bleep do women getting off on broccoli stems and bak choy have to do with the ethical treatment of animals? I understand the value of shock, but I’m not sure you should expect people to take you seriously when this is the level you stoop down to, and perhaps NBC did you a favor by rejecting your soft porn commercial. I’m no prude, but maybe next time, you should shoot for more than giving your audience a hard on.
I stumbled upon this NYT review article the other day, reeled in by the book author’s colorful first name and the killer of a hook opening line. I haven’t actually read her book yet, but I’m already in love with Fuchsia Dunlop’s story; besides seeming like an obviously smart and talented writer, she epitomizes the kind of gastronomic adventurousness that I do not and will never possess. I am slightly jealous because it was this unadulterated willingness to try anything and everything that made such a powerful cultural experience possible for her. I consider myself a pretty conservative eater, and generally stay away from trying new things. However, what allows people like Ms. Dunlop and I to coexist without contradiction is the variety of ways in which people can appreciate food. I think it’s rather beautiful, the fact that we can each have our own approach to food and enjoy eating for so many different reasons (or none at all).
As we all do approach food differently, I truly believe that one’s gastronomic individuality is a mode of self-expression. Each encounter with food presents an opportunity to express something about my person and to learn more about myself: not just about what I like and don’t like to eat, but about how I feel and how I think. What and how we eat is a window into our cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, aesthetic sensibilities, belief systems, and even our political sympathies. There was a news article a few months back that stuck out in my mind precisely because it hit upon this connection between food and politics. It says: “IF there’s butter and white wine in your refrigerator and Fig Newtons in the cookie jar, you’re likely to vote for Hillary Clinton. Prefer olive oil, Bear Naked granola and a latte to go? You probably like Barack Obama, too. And if you’re leaning toward John McCain, it’s all about kicking back with a bourbon and a stuffed crust pizza while you watch the Democrats fight it out next week in Pennsylvania. If what we eat says a lot about who we are, it also says something about how we might vote.” The article discusses the phenomenon of “microtargeting,” in which food-related consumer habits are studied for the purpose of more efficient presidential campaigning. Campaigns are essentially using food as a window into one’s personhood. I actually think the last line in the quote is redundant – doesn’t “who we are” encompass “how we might vote”? Isn’t that the entire point?
Vegetarianism (and other practices involving varying levels of ascetics) is one overt example of this idea that food reflects a lot about our inner beings. The vegetarians I’ve come across weren’t born vegetarian (I’m very interested in how people “become” vegetarian, and I always try to make it a point and ask them about it. I think part of what makes me so fascinated by it is that I could never commit to such a thing. It would be somewhat oxymoronic to identify as Chinese and vegetarian.); it generally seems to be a practice that results when one develops a strong conviction in something, whether it’s sustainability, personal health, weight loss, spirituality, or the physiologically superfluous nature of protein. Regardless of the reason, vegetarianism demonstrates how the act of eating is a personal statement. Just as some people, like Dunlop, identify themselves by the variation in foods they consume, so too do others project themselves in just the opposite way: by limiting their food choices to what feels good and right to them.
Lastly, I was struck by the last line of the article on Dunlop’s book, which states that, “…what makes [her book] a distinguished contribution to the literature of gastronomy is its demonstration, through one person’s intense experience, that food is not a mere reflection of culture but a potent shaper of cultural identity.” That is to say, food not only reveals who we are, it changes us, giving us a means to evolve and to grow as individuals. I was talking to a relative this evening while we were having a meal, and when a plate of chicken feet was plopped down in front of us, I observed that he did not take any. When I asked him about it, he responded, “I used to eat them, but at one point, I actually realized that I was eating chicken feet.” I paused slightly, a chicken foot dangling from my mouth. I guess chicken feet probably wouldn’t make it on any list of “conservative foods,” but I had been raised under the assumption that eating the foot of a chicken was perfectly sane. To me, his response indicated a fundamental shift in his perspective, one that mandated a more Westernized palate (or maybe just more hygienic). I went back to munching, my conscience slightly unsettled but by no means permanently disturbed. For me, what’s important is eating responsibly and eating honestly, which means striking a balance between health and happiness (which itself is ever evolving). Let the chicken feet-eating continue.